Beyond the Hangover: Insidious Plastic Changes are the Real Reason to Stop Drinking

August 23, 2022

As someone who has drunk alcohol on a fairly regular basis (with the exception of acute periodic abstention) since the age of 19, I've been consciously examining my relationship with alcohol and what it brings to my life.  

In short:- my findings have alarmed me.  

We obviously all know that alcohol is not good but learning about the extent of the negative consequences of alcohol has been eye opening.  

I'm not talking about the hangovers, how even just one beer interrupts and changes the architecture of sleep, that it costs a fortune or even the stupid decisions that you make while inebriated.  Those are all widely understood and a given.

I'm not even talking about the increased risk of cancer (most notably breast cancer), cirrhosis of the liver or kidney damage that are all side effects of heavy drinking.  Again, while we tend to try and play down these risks, they're all relatively well known.

But what most of us don't fully recognize is how a "normal" intake of alcohol on a weekly basis rewires your brain and affects your day to day life even when not drinking.  

The science is clear:- even what most would consider as a "normal" consumption of alcohol can lead to long term negative changes in your happiness, stress, wellbeing, willpower and impulsive tendencies.  Such effects remain long after the hangover has worn off changing your behavior and decision making in everyday life.

The 3 Plastic Changes in your Brain

My new favorite podcaster and neuroscientist, Andrew Huberman, describes the 3 long term "plastic" changes that occur in the brains of those that consume alcohol on a regular basis.  

To clarify, a "regular" basis could mean one or two drinks per night. But it could also mean drinking higher amounts (7 beers, for example) one or two nights per week.  And the term "plastic" is related to the brain's property of "neuroplasticity" or, in other words, the brain's ability to modify, change, and adapt both structure and function throughout life and in response to experience 

The Big 3 are as follows:-

  • Increased stress when not drinking
  • Diminished mood and feelings of wellbeing when not drinking
  • Changes in the neural circuitry that cause people to want to drink even more to get back to baseline

This is damning.  If you regularly drink alcohol, you'll feel more stressed, less happy and you'll have less willpower and impulse control in your day to day life.

What this Means for Me

I can't speak for you, but for me the ramifications are clear.  If I drink alcohol on a regular basis then my quality of life will suffer.   

For one, my lack of impulse control will mean that I'm less likely to do the habits that I know I should be doing and that are important for living a good life (exercise, progress in business, learning through reading, creative work etc).  My business, health and engagement with life as a whole will end up taking a hit.

Secondly, my baseline level of wellbeing and happiness will drop.  I'll be less able to take enjoyment from the simple pleasures in life (having a coffee while reading a book, taking a walk on the beach etc.) due to dampened dopamine receptors from excessive exposure to the dopaminergic effects of alcohol.  It will be very difficult to regularly sit down and do a deep work session and damned near impossible to develop the skill of enjoying my work.  This skill, the enjoyment of work, is vital for me to overcome challenging problems and consistently build and create things; something that's very important to me and my quality of life.

Finally, my levels of stress and anxiety will be chronically elevated.  I have a history of anxiety and it's debilitating.  Anxiety and the feelings of helplessness can quickly lead to depression and extended periods (weeks or months) of apathy and malaise where I'm lying on the couch and don't have the motivation to do anything.

The Insidious Nature of Alcohol

A heroin addict is under no illusion about the damning effects of the drug when their addiction causes their whole life to come crashing down around them.  The same could be said about hardened alcoholics - by the time you're drinking 2 litres of vodka per day, the benefits of abstention are pretty clear.  

As a moderate consumer of alcohol, though, the lines become blurred.  Changes to your emotional wellbeing and behaviors are subtle and slowly occur over time as the brain adapts its neural circuitry.  You can still hold down a job, raise a family and perform well in most situations.  Because of this, it's easy to assume that once the hangover from hell wears off, everything is back to normal.  

But it isn't.  The insidious nature of alcohol is that you're borrowing happiness and enjoyment from tomorrow and paying substantial interest.  

I'm at the stage of acceptance.  I can either chose to continue drinking alcohol and subject myself to a worse emotional baseline indefinitely or I can choose to give up alcohol completely and live in a happier state while pursing things that are important to me.  I accept that I can't do both.  

The next step is to decide.

I'm 17 days without alcohol and I've drunk 3 times in the last 8 weeks.  That's a decent reduction in my normal intake.  I've had multiple runs at quitting alcohol previously and failed each time.  

To say I've decided to never drink again is a bit daunting.  But today I definitely won't. 

My plan is to say the same thing everyday from here onwards.

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